Did you know that cirrus clouds are found at higher altitudes than stratus clouds? No? Then you’re an idiot.

Morgan Morel
Imran Syed

Sorry, I just need to calm down. Watching a couple of episodes of Fox’s new game show “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” has made me in aggressively competitive and more than a little bratty – kind of like I was in, well, fifth grade.

The point of the show, which premiered last week to an unprecedented ratings rout, is simple enough – one adult contestant must answer questions taken from first- to fifth-grade classes for a chance to win up to $1 million.

Not bad, right? I mean what sort of UCLA history major with a law degree wouldn’t know that Andrew Johnson was the first American president ever to be impeached? The show’s first contestant, for one.

Go ahead, snicker and mock – that’s what Fox wants you to do. That’s what the five kids in the “classroom” on the set (who contestants can cheat from, of course) did. See those grown-ups squirm when asked grade school questions and laugh it up.

The show is the latest in Fox’s never-ending quest to exploit the insecurities of unwitting good sports for gargantuan profits and ratings (see “American Idol”). The only thing worse than not knowing that Columbus Day is in October (very useful life information, by the way), is not knowing it on TV.

Sure, the premise of the show, one that succeeds only by filtering out the adults who could answer those questions, is mind-numbingly banal. Yet it pains me to know that the show premiered last Tuesday with the highest ratings of any series premiere in the past nine years and even almost matched the viewership of ratings behemoth “American Idol.”

No, I’m not bitter. As a fiend for useless facts, I have crammed more knowledge non sequiturs in my mind than anyone can imagine. Even the cold, exploitive motive behind the show isn’t the main concern.

What truly bothers me is that something like knowing what REM stands for is being passed off as an indicator of intelligence. And one viable enough that those who fail are subject to humiliation by a groaning audience and tittering pre-teens.

I’m glad that chubby little Kyle can regurgitate the answers pounded into his head by the abrasive gurgling characteristic of an American grade-school education. I’m just not sure he or anyone else should be so thrilled about it.

Could Kyle tell me what parts of the brain are especially active in REM sleep and what the physiological implications are of this activity? No, but he did scribble “rapid eye movement” with a smug gleam in his eye before the question was even out of host Jeff Foxworthy’s mouth.

Yes, it does look pretty bad when an adult American doesn’t know that Mercury is the planet closest to the sun. But the reaction to this gaffe misses the point. The average fifth-grader knows the answer because it was on his last exam and his mom made him memorize it by dangling an Xbox in exchange for acing his science quiz. Two months from now – let alone two decades – he’ll be just as clueless as that poor woman viewers laughed at during the show.

The state of the adult American intellect is indeed troubling. A far cry from being able to find places like Iraq or Afghanistan on a map, about 50 percent of Americans can’t even locate the state of New York. But the reason for these shortcomings is actually rooted in the same meaningless knowledge the kids on the show flaunt before the adult contestants.

Our parents were also made to memorize things like the workings of the Dewey decimal system, but such pointless information is easily forgotten, because it serves no purpose. No wonder so many kids and adults have lost faith in American schools: How is knowing what constellation the Big Dipper belongs to ever going to help anyone?

While being well-read in the constructs that surround us is preferable, and indeed the mark of a vested intellect, let’s not for a moment confuse knowledge with intelligence. It is important to teach facts that constitute common knowledge, but we must always ensure that such teaching serves a purpose in further, more advanced learning. This country’s grade schools continue to occupy kids with a perpetual game of Trivial Pursuit, leaving relevant, meaningful learning to high school or college. But by that time, it’s often too late: kids are left unwilling or unable to engage sophisticated intellectual content.

But perhaps we can take some solace in knowing that even if our high schoolers can’t match third graders from some other nations in math and reading proficiency, they’ll always be able to tell you that the ship the Pilgrims sailed on was called the Mayflower.

What more could an employer possibly want?

Imran Syed is the editorial page editor. He can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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